U.S. Forest Service scientists believe an Oregon State University graduate student working on a cooperative project with the agency's Pacific Southwest Research station photographed a wolverine.
Katie Moriarty, a wildlife biology student, was conducting research on another carnivore called the American marten when a remote-controlled camera she set photographed the animal on February 28.
Forest Service scientists who are experts at detecting rare carnivores believe the photographed animal is a wolverine.
The photograph taken by a remote-controlled camera set by Katie Moriarty (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service, Oregon State University)
The North American wolverine is the largest member of the weasel family. The wolverine resembles a small bear, with a bushy tail and broad head. Adult males weigh 26 to 40 pounds, while females are 17 to 26 pounds. They eat carrion, small animals, birds, insects and berries.
Most U.S. wolverine populations are found in the Northern Cascades in Washington, and Northern Rockies in Montana and Idaho. The nearest known resident population is about 900 miles north of the Tahoe National Forest in Northern Washington.
Attempts have been made for decades to photograph wolverines in California, according to Bill Zielinski, a Forest Service scientist with the Pacific Southwest Research Station and an expert at detecting wolverines, marten and fisher. He said periodic sightings have occurred, but never scientifically confirmed using detection methods that produce verifiable evidence.
Scientists will now use remote-controlled cameras and barbed wire snares that snag hair in an attempt to confirm the presence of wolverines. They may use dogs trained to find wolverine scat, said Zielinski.
Scientists have found dogs to be three and a half times more successful at detecting rare carnivores than remote-controlled cameras in forested areas like the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Zielinski said hair and scat samples would contain DNA that can be analyzed to determine where the animal originated.
"We have good genetic templates from populations that have been studied elsewhere that can be used to understand the origin of this animal," he said. "But, first we need a DNA sample."
In order to avoid interference with ongoing studies, Forest Service officials are not releasing the exact location where the wolverine was photographed.
The agency's regional forester for California has listed the wolverine as a sensitive species, and the 2004 Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment directs the Forest Service to conduct an analysis to determine if activities within five miles of where a wolverine was detected will affect the species.
"This is an exciting research discovery, both for its scientific value, and as a demonstration of our success in forest management," said Tahoe National Forest Supervisor Tom Quinn. "For now, we on the Tahoe National Forest have more questions than answers."
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